Check Your Email, Break The Law

If there’s a shutdown, Federal workers will be forbidden from checking their email:

You know those vacations where you say you’re not checking your e-mail, but everyone knows you’re lying?

Well, when federal employees go off the grid, they mean it. In the event of a government shutdown — just 12 hours to go until the deadline — workers on furlough will be barred from accessing their work e-mail accounts, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

That means no “marking-as-read,” “just peeking,” or “catching up.” Public servants who’ve been told to stay home may even be asked to hand over their mobile devices — just to make sure.

Federal employees who do check their inboxes will technically be breaking an obscure law known as the Antideficiency Act, which was passed over a hundred years ago and carries a penalty of fines or even imprisonment.

But wait, it gets even more bizarre:

If there isn’t time to notify an employee whether they’ll be affected by the shutdown before it hits, the government can’t use work e-mail to tell them about it:

This also means that the government can’t use work e-mail to tell employees that they need to come back into work because they have been suddenly deemed to be essential. Only government could come up with rules like this.

FILED UNDER: Open Forum, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Scott says:

    The Antideficiency Law is not an obsure law. It is a fundamental Federal contracting law. It essentially says you have to have funds in hand before issuing a contract.

    As for the email business, it is the same rules of engagement that occurred during the summer furloughs. Nothing new.

  2. James Joyner says:

    It’s especially amusing for those of us in the professions. The notion that we’ll stop doing the reading, writing, and researching components of our job just because we’re barred from the physical premises and thus can’t do much of the teaching component is silly. But that’s the pretense.

  3. David in KC says:

    The other ADA… Had to deal with that thing back in the 90s. Back then the number of people ever convicted under the ADA was zero, the number of people that still had a career after violating the ADA also stood at zero.

  4. Liberal Capitalist says:

    “Only government could come up with rules like this.”


    So Doug… do you think when automakers do a forced mandatory summer shutdown, they expect to have folks sneaking in and building cars when no one is watching?

    The notion that we’ll stop doing the reading, writing, and researching components of our job just because we’re barred from the physical premises and thus can’t do much of the teaching component is silly.

    James – I think this says more about your electronic addiction, than it does the point at hand.


    If the conservatives see a government shutdown as a way to control costs and mandate their will, then it is mandatory that employees follow the rules being set down by their employers.

    Since congress is responsible for paying the bill for their spending, they are the employers.

    If they choose to avoid paying, then services should shut down, and shut down completely.

    REAL WORLD: The power company give you a deadline, an extension even… IF you give a promissory message. But if you choose not to pay, especially if the reason is as stupid as “I just don’t feel like it”… that’s it, it’s off.

    To think that one can avoid paying a debt because something else completely unrelated is personally irksome to them… well, that is just childish.

    (Not to mention, in this case, devastating to the economy, as it damages the creditworthiness of treasury bills… but let’s not digress.)

    Let’s face it: with the lack of unions, we Americans are being told by our employers that we have to do more and more mandatory things in “off-hours”, even including taking forced holidays at certain times of the year. Why do they say this? Because the company will say “slower business, make sense, etc.”, but the real reason is to have employees burn out some of those vacation days that the employee is already too scared to take. That way the company will not need to keep those hours on their books as a financial liability.

    So, as part of the great machine, we take forced holidays, and check our emails… knowing that the work won’t stop and our managers will not take “shutdown” as an excuse.

    But this is different. This government shutdown is the refusal of a minority to admit that they lost an election as well as the fight against a legislation.

    So they will take their ball, and go home.

    I cheer each government employee choosing to spend the day with family, friends, or even spend the whole day in bed catching up on world events. I personally would forbid them from opening any work related email or even THINKING about work.

    When this is all over, they will likely get back pay for the days they missed, and the GOP will again look the fools.

    My my, how three year olds are SO petulant.

  5. Pinky says:

    Yeah, I also have to go against Doug on this one. If a government worker can be expected to continue his duties without being paid, there won’t be a reason that any administration or congress can’t trim a little cash off the top by dipping into the payroll budget. Mess with this law and in two years’ time the system will collapse.

  6. JKB says:

    So you think that furloughed government employees should be able to access their work email, thereby creating an enforceable claim for pay for work when the agency does not have legal authority to make such obligations?

    I expect that the ADA cite is wrong. If the agency or managers permitted through action or inaction, employees to access their email or otherwise due work for which they can claim compensation, the agency/manager would be in violation of the ADA.

    As a lawyer you should be able to see that this notification not to use government resources or otherwise do work for which a compensation claim could be made is what is required to keep such claims from being made.

    If you think it is stupid then blame the long line of attorneys who in the past have pressed successful claims for clients so that they receive pay for work they performed even when technically no longer employed. “Sure the employee was laid off and technically not suppose to work but the agency failed to prevent them from doing work so therefore has an obligation to pay the employee even though the agency has/had no legal right to obligate those funds.”

    Basically, sometime in the past, some lawyer….

  7. JKB says:

    Oh, and nothing will come of this, unless someone makes a claim for pay because they responded to an email or read a work related book, etc. Then they’ll trot out this instruction and go through the server logs to start disciplinary action against violators.

    If you don’t like labor law, then the correct way to deal with it is to lobby to have it changed. This no email, etc. is more critical for non-exempt employees than the exempt (which I’m sure professors are) since I assume it works like OT where the non-exempt employee must be prevented from doing the work or the obligation to pay is incurred whereas the exempt employee must have pre-approval for overtime for the obligation to be enforceable.